When I grew up in the overwhelmingly white blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia known as Levittown, a soft white supremacism was pervasive. When blacks were spoken about at all, it was rarely if ever positively. The conversations generally involved words such as “lazy,” “uneducated,” “immoral,” and “irresponsible.” The stereotype employed to justify this judgment was that of the able-bodied black man on some form of public assistance who sired a few children with a few women who were also on welfare. It was a decidedly decadent and self-destructive culture, according to the adults outside my home.
Some 20 years later, the problems once identified with the black community—joblessness, out of wedlock births, criminality—have taken on a lighter hue. As the social critic Charles Murray recently chronicled in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, the white working class has been ravaged over the past half-century by the same afflictions they once looked down their noses at their black neighbors for. Marriage rates have declined. Divorce rates have increased and out-of-wedlock births have exploded, meaning more children raised in single-parent homes. The number of blue-collar white men in their prime working ages who dropped out of the labor force more than doubled. Disability claims skyrocketed. The number of white prisoners is up nearly 500 percent since 1974. For the new white upper class, however, as Murray shows, experiencing these problems is like taking a dip in an otherwise tranquil sea and drowning due to the undertow: it happens, but only rarely.
What makes Murray’s book even more horrifying reading is when he pulls back at the end to extend his analysis to the entire U.S. population, “induc[ing] recognition of the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams—not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” A new upper class, marked by high IQs and great wealth, is self-segregating into affluent bubbles—which Murray calls “SuperZips”—and occupies the commanding heights of our economy and government, while the rest of us become mere spectators. But if you’re looking for Murray to explain how this came about, you’re out of luck. “I focus on what happened, not why,” he says at the outset.
What Murray shows empirically was predicted by another social critic, now dead for more than two decades, who put forth a damning indictment of American capitalism’s inability to recognize any limits in its quest for economic growth. Its voraciousness destroyed the very things conservatives hold most dear, he argued, ultimately producing the same destructive tendencies in white working-class suburbs like Levittown that residents previously associated with the inner city.
“In some ways middle-class society has become a pale copy of the black ghetto,” this social theorist, Christopher Lasch, wrote in his most popular work, The Culture of Narcissism. “We do not need to minimize the poverty of the ghetto or the suffering inflicted by whites on blacks in order to see that the increasingly dangerous and unpredictable conditions of middle-class life have given rise to similar strategies for survival,” he continued. “Indeed the attraction of black culture for disaffected whites suggests that black culture now speaks to a general condition, the most important feature of which is a widespread loss of confidence in the future.”
Over the course of his life and work, Lasch, who was the son of progressive parents and was himself initially drawn to Marxism, grew more culturally conservative as he grew more and more tired with American society’s tendency to equate the good life with mere consumption and consumer choice. Both Democrats and Republicans, he believed, adhered to the “ideology of progress,” a belief system whereby, either through redistribution of wealth or economic growth, “economic abundance would eventually give everyone access to leisure, cultivation, refinement—advantages formerly restricted to the wealthy.”
But Lasch’s conservatism was always idiosyncratic, fusing respect for the conservative traditions of working-class life also celebrated by Charles Murray—such as faith, family, and neighborhood—with a genuine desire for egalitarian democracy based on broad-based proprietorship. As a former Marxist, his analysis always held labor, particularly when self-directed or done voluntarily in cooperation with others, in high esteem because of the ethic of responsibility it produced. Work wasn’t, or shouldn’t be, just a means to put food on the table or a roof over your head. Rather it provided meaning, dignity, and moral instruction, something not found by repeating mind-numbing tasks over and over at someone else’s direction.
After surveying American history, Lasch increasingly latched onto what he described as the producerist ideology animating the young United States throughout much of the 19th century. This meant a celebration of the self-reliance, independence, and modesty of the farmers and artisans who went to work on their own initiative and controlled the means of production, whether that was the plow or the tools of their particular trades. Because of their independence and competence, they could be citizens in the truest sense of the word.
They loathed extreme disparities in wealth and looked upon luxury suspiciously because of the corrosive effect it had on people. “‘Wealth and splendor, instead of fascinating the multitude,’ ought to ‘excite emotions of disgust,’” wrote Lasch, quoting Thomas Paine, whom he considered one of America’s earliest populists. What motivated this revulsion was the belief that the only honest way to accumulate wealth was by what could be produced with one’s hands, which also assured that whatever economic inequality there was would be not only be tolerable but just. “Freedom,” Lasch wrote in The True and Only Heaven, summarizing majority opinion in the early 19th century, “could not flourish in a nation of hirelings.”
Lasch understood the paradox that much of the modern American left and right find contradictory: property could be theft, particularly under capitalist property relations and wage labor, but it also meant freedom for small producers—such as farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers in the 19th century or what today have become small business owners and sole proprietorships—who were able to control the conditions under which they made their living. The rise of mass production for ever-expanding markets and with it the shift to salaried labor destroyed this radical yet deeply conservative outlook on life, turning skilled craftsmen who worked for themselves into interchangeable cogs in somebody else’s machine, both literally and figuratively. Workers understood this, noted Lasch, and reacted by “defending not just their economic interests but their crafts, families, and neighborhoods.”
Revolting against the dehumanizing conditions of deskilled wage labor, yet understanding that large-scale factory production was here to stay, skilled craftsmen and owners of productive land exemplified by organization like the Knights of Labor and the Farmers’ Alliance envisioned a new society that resisted both state capitalism and state socialism. Centralization, whether it was at the behest of the boss or the bureaucrat, was their enemy. Their nemesis, however, prevailed, as Americans accepted that the cost of affluence and abundance was the loss of control over their very lives. With no sense of how history could have gone any other way, any pursuit of worker control today has been lost to history, smeared as communist rather than authentically American.
But producerist populism, Lasch believed, should be revived for the 21st century as contemporary liberal and conservative politics—which both see average Americans as spectators and consumers in matters of policy and production—prove worthless and devoid of popular allegiance. Only a producerist and populist politics could revitalize the notion that direct and local citizen control over politics and the workplace is the best synthesis of radical and conservative American ideals, as people realize the bipartisan consensus around progress-as-consumption is ultimately hollow and illusionary.
Self-sufficiency seems a dream for many today who have become a surplus population, dragging down wages as technology quickens the obsolescence of their labor and eats away at their livelihoods. Even before his death in 1994, Lasch could see that most of those lucky enough to have steady work toiled at jobs they could hardly care less about, dead-end careers without purpose outside of economic survival. Self-expression and mastery of a skill were things left to leisure time, if there was any.
Lasch understood that democracy is a fiction when people spend their lives working in conditions over which they exert little or no control, compensated by shoddy consumer goods that bring faint comfort when the things that really matter—such as adequate schooling and homeownership, the last vestige of proprietorship for most people today—are out of reach. These social facts don’t produce citizens capable of self-governance but a people who are ruled over by a remote technocratic elite, as Murray has correctly observed, who make decisions for the masses they know little and care even less about.
Even with President Obama’s recent championing of “middle-class economics” and the Republican Party’s occasional concessions to belief in the social destructiveness of economic inequality, both parties cling to different branches of what Lasch called the ideology of progress, redistribution on the left and “a rising tide lifts all boats” on the right. By contrast, Lasch’s vision of the good life is truly radical yet profoundly conservative; it harkens back to traditions now largely dormant in American life where those who worked for a living wanted to build local communities, in the words of 19th-century labor leader Robert MacFarlane, based upon the now forgotten American ideal of “small but universal ownership” of property, which was the “true foundation of a stable and firm republic.” In other words, independence rooted in both liberty and equality.
This producerist ideology, according to Lasch, “deserves a more attentive hearing, on its own terms, than it has usually received.” It holds the answer to the questions critics like Charles Murray raise—and reveals that too many libertarians and conventional conservatives are confused apologists for a system that produces everything they despise: authoritarianism, centralization, and widespread dependence.
Matthew Harwood’s work has appeared in Antiwar.com, The Guardian, The Washington Monthly, and elsewhere.